Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Victorians' Secrets Ruth Goodman Pens a Meticulously Researched Book about Daily Life from 1837 to 1901

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Victorians' Secrets Ruth Goodman Pens a Meticulously Researched Book about Daily Life from 1837 to 1901

Article excerpt


By Ruth Goodman

Liveright Publishing Co. ($29.95).

Ruth Goodman is a rare person. She has not just researched the Victorian era, she has lived it. She has sewn its clothes, lived its conditions and done its work. Yes, she has washed floors in an unheated house wearing a corset.

Almost anything the reader might want to know about daily life from 1837 to 1901 is covered in "How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to- Dusk Guide to Victorian Life," published late last year, and covered in a most accessible way. The reader follows the Victorians through a typical day, awakening, washing, dressing, grooming, exercising working, eating, playing, having sex and sleeping.

Although the Victorian era ended just 114 years ago, the contrast with our own time is striking. Without electricity, indoor plumbing or modern medicine, people toiled endlessly to survive.

The ability to keep clean separated the respectable poor from the desperate. And keeping clean was no small feat. Baths such as we know them were rare - the Victorians regarded water as dangerous. Better to use a sitz bath, having a standing wash or rub one's body with cloths, which would clean the skin without allowing the pores to open to infection. The author says she used this last method for four months "and nobody noticed." Hmmm.

Victorians relied heavily on keeping a washable layer of clothing next to their skin and layers that didn't need washing over that. The corset, for instance, was one of these unwashable layers. Nearly all women wore corsets every day - "[o]nly those who were prepared to be social outcasts went without."

These could be easily sewn oneself in the earlier part of the era. "The body does adjust," Ms. Gordon writes. "After a few days I found that I was able to be as vigorous in my corset and with my waist reduced by four inches as ever I was. I was soon charging around after escaped pigs and scrubbing floors, just as before." By the 1860s the corset began to morph into the steel-boned, disfiguring garment we think of today.

For men, grooming one's hair and beard took center stage. The full treatment included washing the face with hot water and soft soap, a shave with lather, hair oil, a facial massage with oil, and aftershave. Men of all classes regarded a trip to the barber as a treat, and men who couldn't afford the trip shaved themselves every morning with their own special soap, straight razor and propped-up mirror.

Cleaning clothes comprised another aspect of cleanliness that separated the acceptable from the shunned. Laundering Victorian fabrics could be extremely complicated, and a mistake could mean the loss of a garment at a time when people might own only one or two outfits. The poorest people washed their single outfit at night, slept naked and dressed in the wet clothes in the morning. …

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